Last summer, with the deal to add Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park on the verge of unraveling in the Maine Legislature, Sam Hodder headed north and hiked to the lake for a quiet weekend.
For months, as project manager for the Trust for Public Land, he’d been telling the story of the lake, how it was the final piece of Gov. Percival Baxter’s grand vision for the park and how it made a deep impact on people such as Teddy Roosevelt and painter Marsden Hartley.
But on that weekend, paddling a canoe across the water, he silently soaked it all in: pristine coves, a curious loon, a soaring bald eagle and a brilliant sunset behind Mount Katahdin.
“It’s a magical place,” he said. “It reminded me of why we were all working on this project.”
The $14 million deal, one of Maine’s most ambitious and complex ever, survived the legislative ordeal, as well as several other setbacks that could easily have killed it. Katahdin Lake became part of Baxter State Park Dec. 15.
“The project came near death so many times,” said Hodder.
Hodder was one of the key people who kept it moving. He was in the middle of the effort from the first negotiations with the landowner nearly four years ago to the final appeals for donations and the transfer of land to the park.
“These kinds of projects look inevitable in hindsight, but it was not inevitable that this land was going to be acquired,” said Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, one of many who kept close tabs on the effort. “It could have unraveled at a dozen different points along the way.”
The lake sits just to the east of Mount Katahdin in Penobscot County. It has proved an elusive target for conservationists going back to Baxter, who saw it as a centerpiece of the state’s wilderness park, but was not able to acquire it before his death in 1969.
The state tried to buy the lake when land around it was put up for sale in 2002. But it was sold instead to Gardner Land Co., a Lincoln-based wood products company. “The situation became more urgent than it ever had been in the history of the property,” Hodder said.
The Gardner family bought the land for timber to supply its sawmills, but was well aware of its future value for conservation or development. “It’s a pristine place up there,” said Tom Gardner, who negotiated the deal for the company.
Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the Department of Conservation, and other officials approached Gardner soon after the purchase, and the family agreed to talk about a deal. The state, meanwhile, joined forces with Hodder and the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization based in California with a Maine office in Portland.
Hodder, a 38-year-old Princeton graduate, worked for the organization on the West Coast before coming to Maine seven years ago.
Hodder, who lives in Yarmouth with his wife and four young sons, has had a hand in negotiating deals and raising money for many conservation projects around the state. Hodder and the Trust were particularly important for this deal because it would hinge on private fundraising. State funds cannot be used to buy land for Baxter State Park because of Baxter’s restrictions on public use and access.
Hodder and the trust “really stepped to the plate here,” said Ralph Knoll, a former deputy director of Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, and the state’s lead negotiator.
Hodder and Knoll spent so much time shuttling to Lincoln and elsewhere to negotiate the deal that some referred to the effort as “the Sam and Ralph Show.” “There were a couple of moments when Sam and I would drive back from Lincoln and question, ‘Can we do this? Are there too many issues or too many complications?'” Knoll said.
In addition to the need for private fundraising, the Gardner family would not take money for the land. It wanted other forest land so the company could keep feeding its mills.
That required other negotiations for private timberlands that would have to be bought and then traded to the Gardners.
A number of deals fell through, each time sending the negotiators back to the start.
Hodder, Knoll and others may well have rescued the deal in 2005 by convincing the Gardner family to stop cutting trees in a rare old-growth section of the property. Stripping the land, Hodder warned, would doom the fundraising campaign and the deal.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was the political one. The Trust needed to buy state-owned woodlots to be part of the swap, and that purchase would require legislative approval. Political pressure to keep the Katahdin Lake land open to hunting and snowmobiling — and therefore not adding it to the park — threatened to sink the deal again.
State officials saved the effort that time with a compromise that added the lake to the park, and left land to the north open for local users.
But the 2-1/2 months spent negotiating in the Legislature stalled the ambitious effort to raise $14 million in private donations in about a year.
The effort had to basically start over, and some of the original donors pulled out because of changes in the deal.
In the end, however, the legacy of Percival Baxter, the old-growth forest and the lake itself brought in the donations. The high-profile battle in the Legislature may have even helped in the end. “There was a sense of momentum that came out of that,” Hodder said.
For Hodder and Knoll, the closing was the end of a long road.
“We knew going into it, it was going to be tough,” Knoll said. “We had no idea how tough it would be or how much controversy it ultimately would generate. Ten years from now, maybe five years from now, people will forget about the controversy and remember and appreciate that the lake is protected. They won’t remember me or Sam Hodder from Adam, but that’s fine. What’s important is the project got done.”
Knoll left the state in September, but came back this month to seal the deal.
Hodder, meanwhile, is now focusing on other deals to conserve land around the state. And he plans to get back to the lake with his family. “There’s no place like it,” he said.